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Full text of "Elijah Fletcher, Citizen of Lynchburg"

f\'.; BRIAR COLLfGf 




3 2449 0412957 7 



Lynchburg Historical 
Society Museum 
Vol. 7, No. 2 
1970 



--/oO 



Elijah Fletcher, Citizen of Lynchburg 



By MARTHA von BRIESEN 



> 




Elijah Fletcher, jrom a portrait painted about 1815. 
now in the possession of Sweet Briar College. 



The background and early life of Elijah Fletcher, who gained some pro- 
minence as a civic leader in Lynchburg, is of particular interest when viewed 
in the light of his later achievements and in the context of political, 
economic, and social conditions during his lifetime. Much of the personal 
information contained in this sketch comes from his letters to his parents and 
to some of his brothers and sisters, letters which now belong to Sweet Briar 
College or to the Indiana State Historical Library. Other personal and 
hi gjtnri ral data come from court records in Lynchburg and Amherst County and 
- reference works, including files of The Virginian , a nineteenth- 
newspaper published in Lynchburg. 



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Digitized by the Internet Archive 

in 2011 with funding from 

Lyrasis IVIembers and Sloan Foundation 



http://www.archive.org/details/elijahfletcherciOOvonb 



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Lynchburg Historical 
Society Museum 
Vol. 7, No. 2 
1970 



/e=>Ko _i 



'^ 



Elijah Fletcher^ Citizen of Lynchburg 



By MARTHA von BRIESEN 




Elijah Fletcher, from a portrait painted about 1815, 
now in the possession of Sweet Briar College. 



:) 



The background and early life of Elijah Fletcher, who gained some pro- 
minence as a civic leader in Lynchburg, is of particular interest when viewed 
in the light of his later achievements and in the context of political, 
economic, and social conditions during his lifetime. Much of the personal 
information contained in this sketch comes from his letters to his parents and 
to some of his brothers and sisters, letters which now belong to Sweet Briar 
College or to the Indiana State Historical Library. Other personal and 
historical data come from court records in Lynchburg and Amherst County and 
from many reference works, including files of The Virginian , a nineteenth- 
century newspaper published in Lynchburg. 



Elijah Fletcher's life began in an Age of Revolution; it spanned the first 
half of the nineteenth century, the period of greatest American expansion behind 
receding frontiers, and it ended shortly before the Civil War. Fate led him 
from Vermont to Virginia, hard work and perseverance carried him from extreme 
poverty to considerable wealth* 

He was born July 28, ^78^ , in Ludlow, Vermont, a small village to which his 
father, Jesse Fletcher, had come only a few years earlier from Westford, 
Massachusetts, as one of the first settlers in the northern wilderness. For his 
homesite on the banks of the Black River, Jesse chose a tract of land which was 
enhanced by a bubbling spring; here he built a log cabin to which in 1784 he 
brought his young wife, the former Lucy Keyes of Westford. Eight years later 
the cabin was replaced by a small frame house which became the ell of a two-story 
farmhouse, erected about I8O5 and still standing today. 

Elijah was the sixth of fifteen children in the family. As soon as he was 
old enough to help with the chores, he joined his father and older brothers at 
work on the farm. They knew the rugged, strenuous life of early settlers, they 
acquired a sober respect for the nourishing earth, and they learned the hard 
lessons taught by the constant struggles of their daily living. As elsewhere 
on the frontier, money was always scarce. 

In spite of this, the Fletchers considered education a necessity, not a 
luxury, and they strove to enable their children to obtain some degree of 
schooling. Apparently Elijah showed special promise as a scholar, for when he 
was fifteen he was sent to live with the grandmother at Westford in order to 
attend the Westford Academy and prepare himself for college. After two years 
at Middlebury College and one at Dartmouth, he returned to Middlebury. Then, 
early in 18 10, he transferred to the University of Vermont where, instead of 
waiting until the usual Commencement date in August, the authorities granted his 
bachelor of liberal arts degree in June. He was thus able to accept the offer 
of a teaching position starting August 1 , at the Raleigh Academy in North 
Carolina, which required the degree. 

Raleigh was his destination when he bade a "long farewell" to his "Dear 
Friends in Ludlow" on July 4, 18 10, and turned his little bay mare's head toward 
the distant southland. An old portmanteau held his few possessions. Two days 
later he wrote to his father from Albany, where he stopped to visit his older 
brothers Timothy and Michael, "I have now and then hypochondriacal or melancholy 
reflection, when I consider I have seven hundred miles to travel, with nineteen 
or twenty dollars to bear my expense. However, I will do the best I can." 

His journey was fatiguing, as he rode some kO or 50 miles a day and usually 
ate "nothing more than a dish of bread and milk or a piece of bread and cheese," 
he wrote to his brother Jesse. "I keep my mare well and starve myself." When 
he reached Washington July 17, he had only eight dollars left in his purse and 
"almost three hundred miles yet to travel." The next day he arrived in 
Alexandria, his funds reduced by half through such added expense as ferries and 
turnpike gates. By chance, he made the acquaintance of a young man named Brooks, 
a teacher at the Alexandria Academy who had friends in North Carolina and 
suggested "an exchange of situation." It must have been with a feeling of relief 
that the weary young Yankee agreed to this arrangement as a welcome solution to 
his problems; he remained in Alexandria and sent Brooks in his place to the schoo 
in Raleigh. 

Fletcher began the new term as one of three instructors at the Academy with 
fifteen scholars under his tutelage; he taught "the Languages and one branch of 
Mathematics." In order to improve his pronunciation and fluency in French, he 
employed a French tutor to call at his room every evening and hear him recite. 
Not long after his arrival in Alexandria, Elijah "celebrated in silence and 



melancholy" his twenty-first birthday. "I spent the day in meditating upon 
past, present, and future events. I considered my career of life commenced," he 
wrote his parents. 

Elijah found his new life much to his liking and vastly different from that 
he had known in Vermont. "The happiness and pleasure arising from my present 
pleasant and profitable situation I think compensates for past troubles," he 
wrote. He boarded with a planter. General Mason (Thomson Mason, third son of 
George Mason of Gunston Hall), and reported to his father: "Our living is rich 
and what in Vermont would be called extravagant... 

"I am so satisfied with my employment, so pleased with the people, and so 
agreeably situated in every other way that I would not exchange my situation for 
any I ever held in Vermont. To be sure I find the manners and customs of the 
Virginians different from the people in the North, but the difference I think 
habit will soon make a pleasing one. 

"The Virginians are very fond of sports and social amusements. They hold 
them very frequently, such as Barbecues and private parties." 

Having grown up on a farm, Elijah viewed with interest — and a critical 
eye — the agricultural methods practiced on the plantations in northern Virginia. 
Much of the land, he reported to his father, was worn out by tobacco culture and 
no efforts were made to replenish its lost riches. When he called on General 
Mason's neighbor. Judge Bushrod Washington, at Mount Vernon he was not greatly 
impressed by the rather "old fashioned style" of the house, but he found the 
gardens and hot houses of particular interest. 

He further reported that he went to the Episcopal church every Sabbath with 
Mrs. Mason and her children. At her request, he taught the three youngest their 
catechism . 

Now that he was happily settled, Elijah could afford to adopt a more philos- 
ophical attitude toward life. "I think myself in a safe harbor," he wrote. "I 
look back upon past troubles and difficulties with a great deal of pleasure. I 
laugh with myself many times to think what a push I made when leaving Vermont and 
how I economised in my indigent circumstances on my journey. I do not regret now 
that my situation was as it was. I should not have known the value of prosperity 
if I had not been in adversity. 

"I now view future prospects with a smile. I have launched my leaky barge 
upon the variously undulating ocean of the world. I mean to make christian 
honesty, but not christian hypocracy, my helm, perseverance and ambition my gale. 
Whether my voyage will prove prosperous or otherwise, at what haven I shall at 
last land, God only knows." 

A few months later the winds of fortune moved his "leaky barge" southwards. 
At the invitation of Congressman David Shepherd Garland of New Glasgow, in 
Amherst County, he accepted the principalship of the New Glasgow Academy, which 
had been chartered in I8O3. The prospects of a higher salary and a more agreeable 
climate, and "an ambition to be first" governed his decision. On May 2, I8II, he 
took leave of his scholars at Alexandria and the following day began his journey 
by stagecoach to Fredericksburg and Charlottesville. While waiting there for 
Mr. Garland's servant and a horse to fetch him, he called on the Philosopher of 
Monticello. As he later wrote to his father, "We rode up to the front gate of 
the door yard, a servant took our horses, Mr. Jefferson appeared at the door. I 
was introduced to him and shook hands with him very cordially. We went into the 
drawing room. Wines and liquers were soon handed us by the servant. He con- 
versed with me very familiarly, he gratified my curiosity in showing me his 
Library, Museum of curiosities. Philosophical apparatus, &c . Mr. Jefferson is 



tall, spare, straight in body, his face not handsome but savage." 

He arrived in New Glasgow on May 11 and four days later began his new duties. 
At first he lived in Mr. Garland's home, but soon moved into the "fine little 
convenient dwelling house for the President of the Academy, " adjacent to the 
school, and took his board nearby at the home of Dr. James Brown, a Scotsman 
who was one of the early settlers of that area. Elijah was pleased with the 
"village of about 50 houses beautifully situated, high and healthy .... the Academy 
is a large brick building with 6 private rooms for scholars to reside in, besides 
school rooms....! teach the Latin, Greek, and French. . .There is a female academy 
likewise, taught in a different building." His salary was $900, a substantial 
increase over that he had received in Alexandria. Elijah continued to live fru- 
gally and to send money frequently to his father, to repay him for the cost of his 
education and to help him with the expenses of his large family. He also sent 
money which he specified was for the education of his younger brothers and 
sisters, and he constantly offered advice regarding their schooling. 

Not long after he was settled in New Glasgow, the future mayor of Lynchburg 
paid his first visit to the town in the company of Dr. Brown, a staunch Presby- 
terian, who was "going to a sacrement . " They rode about twenty-five miles to the 
small settlement, which he described as follows: "Lynchburg is a town about as 
big as Windsor (Vermont). It is situated at the head of navigation in James 
River, a very flourishing town. The river there is as wide as Connecticut River 
at Windsor and boats of heavier burthen come up it. Our produce is sent down 
this river to Richmond about 120 miles, which is our general market.... We went to 
Lynchburg on Saturday, we put up at Parson Reid's, attended Sermon the evening. 
The next day after hearing two discourses they administered the sacrement." 

When the school session began in May, 18 12, the young schoolmaster began a 
new assignment — giving Fre^ich lessons to the daughters of Mr. Garland, Dr. Brown, 
and Mr. Crawford. By November he was bold enough to admit to his father that he 
was giving serious thought to matrimony. The young lady of his choice, whom he 
described as "a most amiable, accomplished, sensible lady," was Maria Crawford, 
a daughter of William Sidney Crawford, o\imer of Tusculum plantation, and his wife, 
the former Sophia Penn, daughter of Captain Gabriel Penn. Both families were 
widely known and respected in the county. Mr. Crawford, a distinguished lawyer, 
was educated at Princeton, and served as clerk of Amherst County for 25 years. 
Elijah and Maria were married in April, 18 13, and began housekeeping "something 
in the Virginia style. I bought a barrel of mackerel and a cheese; the mackerel 
cost 80, the cheese 2 shilling per pound...." Elijah found his new life comfort- 
able and agreeable. He also announced that he had been "persuing the study of 
law, but it is doubtful if I ever practice." He intended to continue his "present 
employment sometime longer but not all my days." 

A year later he had made up his mind to give up his position as principal at 
the Academy. "I find it laborious and confining and not as active a life as I 
wish to lead." He had put some of his savings into land on which he raised corn, 
wheat, and oats. "I have a very good garden and take pleasure to work in it my- 
self," he added. 

When William Crawford died in February, 18 15, Elijah was appointed acting 
administrator of his estate. That summer, on the fifth anniversary of his de- 
parture from Ludlow, Elijah wrote: " I am much more engaged this summer than 
usual. I hardly have a day that I can call my own. The management of all Mr. 
Crawford's affairs devolving upon me makes my task arduous. He was a man of ex- 
tensive concerns and great estate. He left his affairs much deranged and un- 
settled, which renders the settlement of his concerns doubly troublesome." 
Elijah's early training and his own love of farming now stood him in good stead. 

I 
"I have to manage all the Plantations, or at least visit them now and then 



to see if the overseers are going on well. One of our Plantations is 15 miles 
off, another nine. The others are more convenient." 



%t 



& 






Contrary to commonly held beliefs, Elijah Fletcher did not come into a for- 
une through the Crawford estate. In 1821, upon the presentation of his accounts 
as administrator of the estate of William S. Crawford, all duly recorded in the 
court records at Amherst Court House, the Commissioners praised him for the 
"diligent prudence and integrity with which the Estate has been managed. .. and 
from our conviction that his attention has greatly benefited the Estate and that 
much time has been appropriated to it," they allowed liim 8% commission, amounting 
to $1561.75, leaving, the Estate indebted to the administrator by the sum of 
$1390.43. 

By 1818 Elijah and Maria had moved to Lynchburg. Their first son, Sidney, 
was born in 1821 and the second, Lucian, in 1824. Elijah continued to buy and 
sell land. He operated one plantation more than 20 miles from Lynchburg which 
was under the care of an overseer and where tobacco, corn, and wheat were raised. 
He also owned five other tracts of land which were rented out. "1 got this pro- 
perty cheap, had to take some of it in payment of debts, as this country has been 
very much embarrassed and money has been very scarce," he wrote to his father in 
the summer of 1825. 

The same letter contained news of a new kind of property which he had owned 
for several months: "a printing establishment, called The Virginian . " A Whig 
paper, edited by Richard H. Toler, "it has a large circulation and is a profit- 
able establishment." 

There was immediate evidence of Fletcher's interest in farming and in pro- 
moting agricultural improvements. In their opening editorial in January, 1825, 
Fletcher and Toler announced: "During the recess of the national and state legis- 
latures, we shall occupy a portion of our columns with Agricultural essays of a 

ractical nature, derived from the best sources of information which may be with- 
in our reach." The first of this series, which consisted of excerpts from the 
American Farmer , a journal published in Baltimore, appeared in The Virginian in 
June. This proved to be a popular feature which won many readers other than 
Whigs and contributed to the paper's wide circulation. 

Apparently the new owners were also intersted in the establishment of a 
public library. The following announcement appeared in The Virginian on May 3'- 
"It is proposed that a meeting of the gentlemen of Lynchburg and its immediate 
vicinity be held at the Franklin Hotel on the 10th of this month, at 5 o'clock 
in the evening, to form a Public Library in Lynchburg." The next issue carried 
a report that this effort had proved abortive, which was viewed "with regret" 
by the owners of the paper. 

Although Fletcher made no reference to his public life in his letters, he 
had already begun to take part in various commimity endeavors. Several years 
before he bought the newspaper he helped found the first Episcopal church, St. 
Paul's. In 1822 he was one of six men named as a committee to organize a con- 
gregation and raise money for the support of a minister. Of the twenty-eight 
subscribers at the organizational meeting, he was the largest contributor. He 
was one of the first twelve vestrymen appointed, but was not listed among the 
first seven communicants two years later. 

Through his marriage to Maria Crawford, Elijah Fletcher became a slave 
owner. His letters contain several references to his continuing disapproval of 
slavery and his avowed intent to treat his own slaves humanely, to see that they 
were well cared for, clothed and fed. He joined the Lynchburg Auxiliary 
olonization Society and was elected secretary, pro tem, at its first annual 
eeting in August, I826. Its aim was to promote "the removal to the Coast of 
Africa, with their own consent, of such people of color within the United 



states as are already free, and of such others as the humanity of individuals or 
the laws of the different States shall hereafter liberate," according to a report 
of the meeting which appeared in The Virginian . 

A year later, on June 18, 1827, Elijah Fletcher was elected to fill a 
vacancy of the Lynchburg Common Council, of which the other members were John 
Thurmond, president; John Early, Samuel Nowlin, James Newhall, John Victor, and 
David G. Murrell. On June 29, according to the records, Elijah Fletcher took the 
oath and was seated. On the following day, Mr. Victor presented a bill "appoint- 
ing a committee to superintend the erection of water works in the Town of 
Lynchburg." Its members were Elijah Fletcher, Jolm Victor, John Early and David 
Murrell. They were authorized to borrow $50 > 000 to finance the waterworks, com- 
pleted three years later. 

This pioneering enterprise provoked a storm of controversy which culminated 
in a day of unprecedented excitement, the day on which the pumps were put into 
operation. Water was raised 2^5 feet above the surface of the river and carried 
2,000 feet before it began to flow into the reservoir, and the engineers and the 
civic Watering Committee were vindicated. According to Anne Royall ' s admiring 
account of this operation, "The height to which the water is thrown, is greater 
than in any other place in the United States; that of Philadelphia being only 92 
feet, and Cincinnati 175 feet." 

In 1828 Elijah Fletcher was named in the charter granted by the Virginia 
General Assembly as one of the trustees of the new Lynchburg Manufacturing Com- 
pany, which was to produce goods of cotton, wool, hemp, and flax. His name also 
appeared on the citizens' committee to prepare a suitable ceremony for the visit 
of Henry Clay to Lynchburg that September. 

Elected an Alderman in December 1827 to fill a vacancy, he was succeeded on 
the Council by Samuel Claytor, Fletcher continued to serve in the City government 
having been re-elected in 1828 and three succeeding years, and in I831 he was 
chosen mayor of Lynchburg for a year's term. 

Mayor Fletcher called a public meeting in July, I831, to consider plans for 
the Lynchburg and New River Railroad, for which he advocated local and state 
support. Backers of the James River and Kanawha Canal, however, defeated his 
progressive aims and nearly two decades passed before ground was broken at 
Lynchburg for the Virginia & Tennessee line. 

In March, I832, shortly before the end of his term as mayor, Elijah wrote to 
his brother Calvin, "...my time is completely occupied with my own and public 
matters -- the latter of which I intend to lop off -- after doing what I conceive 
every citizen ought to do, a share of public duty which in some things I have al- 
ready done. I have no taste for public life. When it comes to me it is shoved 
upon me, not sought. My disposition is for retirement." In spite of this declar- 
ation, he was again elected to council in I836, and served for a year. 

By this time two daughters had been added to the Fletcher family: Indiana, 
born in 1828, and Elizabeth, in I831. Their home, purchased in I826 for $3,500 
after they had lived in it for several years, stood at the corner of First, or 
Lynch (now Commerce) Street and 8th Alley (now 13th Street), surrounded by two 
acres of land. In 195^ it was described by Miss Ella Miller, then nearly 10^, who 
had lived in the house as a child and whose father, William A. Miller, purchased 
the property in i860 from Indiana Fletcher. According to her clear recollection, 
it was a two-story red brick house with a number of outbuildings at the back. The 
big yard, including the adjoining lot, contained many fine trees said to have been 
planted by Elijah Fletcher, and was encompassed by a brick wall. 

As Elijah wrote to Calvin in I828, "I have spent a heap of money in the 






course of the last year or two in improving my house and lot and making it one 
of the most convenient and handsome in this place... but have got most through 
of spending now and must work a little harder to make up the loss." He also told 
is brother that "Maria has gotten herself a fine Barouche from Philadelphia, and 
was very fortunate in purchasing an elegant match of iron grey horses for her 
carriage upon moderate terms, $175 for both." 

Elijah's sister Lucy and her husband, Dr. Richard P. Williams, of Newark, 
N.Y., spent the winter of 1831-32 in Lynchburg, In a letter to his second son, 
Stephen, Dr. Williams wrote: "Your Uncle Elijah owns one of the handsomest 
situations in Lynchburg, standing high and overlooking the river. His garden is 
laid out in about an acre, slopes off towards the River and is laid out in level 
offsets, planted with cherries, grapes, &c . His house is built of brick, two 
stories high with a cellar kitchen for servants. It... has two wings built on 
each end, making four large rooms on the lower floor. His front yard is elegant, 
being adorned with almost every vegetable that wealth can buy--roses, lilacs, 
'Pride of China' , 'Indica crepens, ' &c . The situation is surrounded by a brick 
and stone wall about seven feet high." 

Not long before their visit, Elijah Fletcher acquired a house and land in 
Amherst Coxmty. At a public auction on December 22, I83O, he bought what later 
became known as Sweetbriar, or Sweet Briar, plantation, the home of Thomas Crews 
and his family. Mrs. Crews, the former Sarah Penn, was a sister of Maria 
Fletcher's mother. Elijah wrote to Calvin: "I have lately bought me a Plantation 
which Maria talks of settling and spending her summers at. You may perhaps 
remember it. It lies this side of Amherst Court House, about 12 miles from here, 
with a large brick house on it, containing about 1000 acres of pretty good land. 
It cost about $7000. It is paid for as well as all the rest of my property. 
There are no debts against me except some small matters. I am not quite pre- 
pared yet to retire from business." 



m 

(It 



He took that step in November, l84l. In a signed editorial he annoimced the 
sale of The Virginian to Richard Toler and two others (K.B. Townley and C.W. 
Statham) and his withdrawal from the concern. "Pursuits more congenial to his 
feelings than the heartless politics of the day leave him but little time to de- 
vote to the management of a public journal .... In dissolving his connection with 
the Virginian , the undersigned returns his grateful acknowledgements to his 
friends and the community who have so generously sustained it for seventeen years, 

The sale of the newspaper and the job printing business, which had for some 
years after 1828 been managed by his brother Timothy, left Elijah free to become 
a farmer, full time. 

In the spring of 1846, Stephen Williams came to Lynchburg to visit his 
uncles Timothy and Elijah and the latter' s family. He spent some time with his 
Aunt Maria and wrote nis parents that the house in Lynchburg was "the pleasantest 
residence in town." He also visited his Uncle Elijah for several weeks at Sweet 
Briar, and informed his parents that "He is one of the most enterprising men in 
Virginia, as I have heard it remarked since I have been here. And his habits are 
the very model of good habits. He rises at half past four.... He breakfasts at 
about six. After sitting down a short time reading his newspaper, writing, or 
talking with me a short time, he looks about his plantation near his house, his 
barn, or whatever needs seeing to, and then having his horse brought out, he 
rides about the plantation seeing that his hands are all properly employed, and 
so he spends the day. He is... a man of great energy and enterprise. He rides 
on horseback a good deal, and stands the fatigue of a thirty miles ride over the 
mountains without relaxing his habits or energy at all the next day .. .Everything 

asses under his eye, he sees to everything, and leaves nothing for the morrow 
which should or can be done to-day, and readily undergoes the greatest fatigue 
without appearing to mind it." Elijah Fletcher was then 57 years old. 



After their return from Europe, where they had gone to school in Paris 
then had traveled widely on the continent, his daughters chose to spend much 
their time at Sweet Briar, It was largely to please them, he wrote to Calvii 
that he enlarged the old farm house by adding the two tower wings in 1 85 1-52. 
After the death of his wife in 1853> Lynchburg saw him but seldom. 



Stephen Williams' description of his uncle Elijah was corroborated twel 
years later in -che brief obituary printed in the Virginian on February 17 > 1? 
a few days after his death at Sweet Briar, "Since that time (i.,e^, after he 1 
sold his interest in the paper) Mr. Fletcher has resided partly in this city 
partly at his elegant abode in Amherst .. .During the short period of our resi 
here it was not our privilege to make the acquaintance of Mr, Fletcher, but v 
learn that he was a gentleman of high character; whilst the records of this c 
and the splendid estate he has left are monuments of his untiring energy and 
industry. " 



WHSSSHiitfi^yti' 




Elijah Fletcher's Home On Elm Avenue In Lynchburg 

COURTESY OF JONES MEMORIAL LIBRARY 



This brief sketch of the life o 
his character and reveals his abilit 
schoolteacher, he never ceased to be 
Although in most respects he was a c 
he was far ahead of his time. Writi 
first birthday, he urged him to give 
will be more respected with an educa 
female education is too much neglect 
education of children and ought to b 
Many years later he reminded Calvin 
we can give our children." 



f Elijah Fletcher gives some insight into 
ies. Having begun his adult life as a 

concerned with the values of education, 
onservative, in regard to education of wo 
ng to his father shortly after his twenty 

his sister Lucy further schooling, "A g 
tion than with wealth," he wrote, "I thi 
ed. They are the ones who have the first 
e qualified to instruct them correctly," |g=i:: 
that "a good education is the best fortuni 



Living up to this precept, Elijah gave his four children unusual educati^ 
opportunities. It is probably not surprising, therefore, that in 19OO, some 
forty years after his death, his daughter Indiana left almost her entire esta 
including the Sweet Briar property, to found an educational institution for g: 
and young women -- Sweet Briar College. This might well be said to be Elijah 
Fletcher's greatest achievement.